Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Problems with "Fact Checking"

I recently came across a link on Facebook to a claim that "Over Half of all Statements Made on Fox News are False," based on a story in the Tampa Bay Times' PunditFact. My first reaction was that I had no more reason to trust the Tampa Bay Times than to trust Fox, making the story  pure partisan assertion, so I followed the link to see what support it offered. To their credit, they listed the statements on Fox that they based their claim on and provided the basis for their conclusions. But looking at them in detail, their evaluation was clearly biased in favor of what they wanted to believe. 

The clearest case was one where they said a claim they liked was mostly true when, on their evidence, it was  false. The claim was: The people who want President Barack Obama impeached "are all white, they're all older, and guess what, they're in the far right wing of the Republican Party." According to the poll information they cited, about 33 percent of the public wanted Obama impeached. There is no way that older whites in the far right wing of the Republican party could make up anything close to 33 percent of the public. According to the poll information, about 17% of non-whites wanted Obama impeached—a lower percentage than of whites, but quite a lot more than zero. The statement should have been rated as mostly false.

Another claim was that ""Over the last 40 years, real wage growth has been flatlined because of the policies of the Federal Reserve ... It was all driven by the Federal Reserve." PunditFact found the flatlined claim "largely correct" but rated the overall statement "mostly false" on the grounds that economists they consulted did not think the Fed had any responsibility for the long term trend in wages. Given the state of macroeconomics—I like to describe a course in macro as a tour of either a cemetery or a construction site—I do not think it's legitimate to rate such a statement as either true or false. The claim that the Fed was largely responsible for the Great Depression, after all, was accepted by, among others, the just previous chairman of the Fed. And the Fed has repeatedly made it clear that it believes that its policies affect the overall health of the economy.

Another claim they rated as false, by Lou Dobbs, was reported as: "Because of President Barack Obama’s failure to "push job creation," the black unemployment rate in Ferguson, Mo., is three times higher than the white unemployment rate." I rate PunditFact's statement of what Dobbs said as itself false, since if you follow the link, what he actually said was "These are the results of policies on the part of the state government, the local community, and the president of the United States," which does not imply that all, or even most, of the problem is due to Obama's policies.

PunditFact's explanation of why what they claim Dobbs said is false includes:

"Experts have consistently told us and our colleagues at PolitiFact that although government policies can affect employment figures, other economic factors are typically at play; in this case, the Great Recession and subsequent recovery."

Considering that Obama himself claimed his policies would bring down unemployment and so terminate the Great Recession, it makes no sense to take it as an entirely independent cause.

PunditFact points out, correctly, that the higher black unemployment rate long predates Obama. But that does not tell us whether different policies by Obama would have changed it. Obama and his supporters, after all, clearly  believe that there are policies he could and should follow that would solve long standing problems.

In summary ...

To their credit, PunditFact takes advantage of the opportunity provided by hypertext to provide detailed explanations of their ratings. Looking at those explanations, I conclude that:

1. PunditFact interprets disagreement with them and the experts they choose to consult as either false or mostly false.

2. PunditFact judges statements they like not by whether they are actually true but by whether a much weaker claim along similar lines is. Thus they implicitly convert "they're all white, they're all older, and guess what, they're in the far right wing of the Republican Party," a claim that is clearly false, into "people who are white, older, and right wing Republicans are more likely to want Obama impeached than people who are not," and then judge it mostly true.

They take the opposite approach to statements they don't like. Converting what Dobbs actually said to "Because of President Barack Obama’s failure to "push job creation" I would rate as "pants on fire"—a flat lie by PunditFact.

4 Comments:

At 11:43 AM, August 26, 2014, Blogger Power Child said...

The Tampa Bay Times won journalism prizes for a series on Stand Your Ground that they ran shortly after the Trayvon Martin shooting. Introducing the series, they wrote:

"Today, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, by a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain has prompted a renewed look at Florida’s controversial law."

The law (which is so "controversial" a majority of states have some version of it) was irrelevant to the incident--this as confirmed by the prosecutors in the Zimmerman trial who wouldn't go near it with a 50-foot pole--so it was the Times themselves who had "prompted a renewed look" at it.

If that is what wins you prizes in journalism, then why trust any news outlet's statements about what is true or false?

 
At 6:20 PM, August 26, 2014, Anonymous Patrick said...

The Trayvon Martin incident did prompt a renewed look at Florida's stand-your-ground law. Even though it was irrelevant to the case, it was nonetheless widely discussed in the media, because it was a *possible* defense (at least until the facts of the case became more clear). The discussion of the law resulted in an increase in public awareness of the law and debate about its merits.

"Controversial" is pure editorializing, of course, but it is true that the media attention did stir up a lot of controversy about the law. And there are certainly sizable groups both in favor of and opposed to the law.

 
At 7:43 PM, August 26, 2014, Blogger jeremy h. said...

The headline "Over Half of all Statements Made on Fox News are False," is also clearly false or at best misleading. It should read "Over Half of all Statements Made on Fox News THAT PUNDIFACT CHOSE TO EVALUATE are False." They clearly did not evaluate EVERY statement.

 
At 10:05 PM, September 10, 2014, Anonymous RJ Miller said...

Very good post, I can't help but assume that any "fact checking" organization is merely an organization that wants to state it's own opinions but more professionally in appearance.

I'll be citing this post in the future.

 

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